Independent Filmmaking: The 8 Biggest Challenges of Making a Movie on a Shoestring Budget

10/14/2017 11:41 am ET
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What are some of the challenges of making a film on an ultra low budget? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Scott Danzig, Independent filmmaker, on Quora:

It’s your project, not theirs

Hobbyists and non-filmmakers might be inspired to help out for free on your production, but ultimately, it’s not their project. It’s yours, as the director. They’re not going to do a lot of pre and post production work. They’re mainly going to contribute for the actual shoot.

Your best bet is to collaborate with people who have long term filmmaking ambitions. They want to work to establish their reputation with your project. These are people that you need to help out equally on their project. What you put in, you’ll get out. So if you want a lot of help with preproduction work, you can expect to have to do the same for them.

Doing it all yourself

What this amounts to is, no matter how you cut it, you’re likely going to have to do a ton of work by yourself. See Scott Danzig's answer to How hard is it to make a short film that is festival worthy? for an example. It’s not as bad as it seems if you make lists and keep doing what you have to do each and every day.

It’s not just the doing, but also the learning. You have to know how to get good sound, and how to work your camera, and how to plan your shots and lighting, and where to get the wardrobe, props and set dressing that you think will look good for your shoot. You’ll have to rent and buy whatever equipment you need, and figure out how to transport it yourself. You’ll have to be ready to do any of it. You might get someone who can step in for sound or even camera, but they might not be very skilled at it. You can very well end up with bad sound or defocused camera shots unless you’re paying very close attention to your volunteers.

And guess who does all the video editing? You’re not going to be as good as a professional video editor, but they’re expensive, in the thousands. They usually don’t handle cleaning up the sound for you. They can choose music that you’ll have to pay for, although you get a better result from a composer. You’ll have to find one that is working to establish themself.

Puppy-dog eyes

With ultra-low budget, you’re likely going to have reservations with getting insurance, which will run at least 800,evenforoneshootday.Ifyouavoidinsurance,youhavetoconvincewhoevermanagesyourlocation,ifit′snotyourownhome,thattheycantrustyoutofilmwithoutit.You′dbettergetontheirgoodside.Ifyoutrytofilmguerrilla−styleyou′regoingtohavetobepreparedtorescheduleifyou′retold“no”.Ihadahorribledayaftertryingtobring50peopleintoahospital,butno,Ididnotpaythe15,000 application fee. The way they innocently suggested that I should do that was nauseating.

Usually things go wrong, like children running across set, or something getting damaged. You need to practice your sad puppy dog eyes, because you don’t have exclusive rights to the location. I find in the suburban and rural areas, usually people will go out of their way to solve the problem for you. In New York City, I’ve moved a baseball game to another field once, but for another production, I couldn’t get one guy to stop playing with his radio-controlled car. Often, it falls on you to do the begging and pleading, because you don’t have the budget to make it official.

Who cares about you?

Other problems… some actors don’t show up for auditions if you try to have them in your home. They just assume you’re a creepy murderer or at least a rapist or slave trafficker. Nothing personal. Also, because you’re small-time, many actors won’t show up for your audition no matter where you have it, even if you just confirmed yesterday. Your best way to fight this is, when you do audition people, or meet with potential crewmates, be professional and have your shit together. Have planned in advance what exactly you need and you’re hoping for. Have a viable master plan already laid out.

Sorry, there’s no time/budget for that…

There’ll be a lot of type of shots you see in movies that you just don’t have the time or budget for. A dolly is quite a cumbersome piece of equipment, and will take about 20 minutes for professionals to set up, so your already very tight shoot schedule needs to accommodate that. To do a green screen right is not easy, and wherever it may have been a good option, it turned out to be too much of an ordeal. I’m thinking that the easiest way to use a green screen is to have a large studio to set it up in. I’m planning on using one for my next shoot, but it’s a tight squeeze in a room that’s about 14 by 16 feet. Things have been getting better though due to better technology, with highly capable 3 axis gimbal stabilizers for lighter cameras, and, drones open up a lot of options too, but everything still costs money, and it adds up.

A billion things to do

There’s also the matter of having enough time to do everything. You likely will have a regular job. Out of a typical 168 hour week, you will likely have to work at least 40 of those hours, plus at least 5 for commuting, and then sleep another 56. Out of the remaining 67 hours, maybe 10 are gone for eating, and another 6 for getting ready in the morning and at night. Then there’s general chores like laundry, cleaning, putting out trash, paying bills, etc, that might amount to another 5 hours per week. 44 hours left. If you have a child, likely most of those remaining hours are gone. If you’re married, you still are likely going to do things with your spouse, maybe another 10 hours? Do you use Quora? Say goodbye to another 4 hours. We’re at 30 hours left. My cat harasses me when I ignore her too much. 26 hours. And I sleep in on Saturday and Sunday, leaving me about 24 hours a week.

I’d say that’s how much time per week I have available for my filmmaking. If I stay vigilant, it’s enough, to get a quality short film done about twice a year. Learning relevant things from reading. auditioning and rehearsing, meeting with people, ordering what I need, writing, planning, fundraising (takes a lot of time!), and eventually, actually making a movie. It builds up and it’s exhausting.

Weekends are for hard work!

For a feature, you probably aren’t going to be taking off time from work if you have an ultra low budget film. You might be willing to use up a lot of your vacation time, but everyone else working for free isn’t. But there are other challenges, even with weekends-only.

Assuming we go with an aggressive 5 pages per 12 hour shoot day, and we have a 90 page feature, that’s 18 days. If you’re just shooting on weekends, that’s 9 weeks straight of very intense filming. Actors and crew have to be available over the course of those two months. How many times I’ve gotten an email from an actor thinking, “Oh, can you reschedule the shoot day? I want to do something else this weekend..” They figure you’ll have little choice, and you usually don’t. It happens with even short films, so it sure as hell will happen on features with actors getting minimum wage at best. So at the same time, everyone else involved is going to have to take off as needed as well. It’s a lot harder when there isn’t much income to spread around.

No reward

Chances are, your film is not going to earn money. It might, but if it’s ultra-low budget, probably not. You might get into a film festival or two, and get appreciative applause, but it’s fleeting. Ultra low budget usually means there’s not much of a wrap party if any. Everyone, even if they worked for free, will be hungry to jump on the next production. You’ll get a film that you at least can show people, for as long as Youtube is around. You probably won’t win anything, and it probably will not lead to anything past another bullet point on IMDB. It’s just one small step in a very long path, and each step is so grueling. Usually, people prefer to take the elevator instead, just watching other people’s movies!

Do it anyway

Ultra-low budget movies are the still the only way for most people to reasonably get started as an indie filmmaker. If you don’t suffer enough, you’re going to end up with a crappy movie, so don’t try it unless you’re committed, practical, and even-keeled enough to survive the journey.

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